One of the things I’ve written about a bit is ‘making sense.’ It is, or so I argue, one of the themes of the theology of Rowan Williams. Theology isn’t in the business of giving definitive answers to difficult questions about life and death and God, but about making sense of ourselves and God in the light of Christ and in the situation in which we find ourselves. We do the best we can–theologians and non-theologians alike.
Sometimes the best we can do falls short of ‘sense,’ insofar as sense means finding the ‘reason’ implied in the saying, “everything happens for a reason.” (By the way, the most convincing reason I have ever seen is “physics.”) To say I enjoyed reading a piece by Kate Bowler in the New York Times today is perhaps not quite right. In “Death, the Prosperity Gospel, and Me,” she talks about the intersection of her life experience (being diagnosed with stage 4 cancer) and her academic work (on the history of the prosperity Gospel). Her husband’s response a neighbor’s suggestion that “everything happens for a reason” cuts right to the heart of the problem. “I’d love to hear it.”
Of course, the neighbor had no response to that. Who would? Some things don’t make sense. When, as a (somewhat idealistic) 24-year-old, I suggested that there might be a way of solving the problem of evil, my professor asked me, “If there were a reason for the holocaust, would you want to know it?” That professor was Miroslav Volf, who inducted me into theology. I’ll always be grateful for that question, though of course at the time I didn’t realize how long it would stay with me. When a woman in her thirties is diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, there is no reason that would be reason enough. There can be, this side of our final redemption, no justification for the pain and loss.
The temptation is always to make sense of things that refuse to submit to our powers of interpretation. We long for the answer to our plaintive, ‘why?’ And it doesn’t come. I hate that. But I would hate the answer even more, I think. Why does my daughter have Down Syndrome? Plenty of good has come of it, yet none of that justifies the difficulties she has faced and will face in her life. There is no reason that is reason enough.
I wish I knew what to say–for I have a friend, a bit older than Kate, who is also dying of cancer. Maybe more slowly, but certainly. A former student, only 30, died last year. I know just one thing, and that is that I am grateful for Kate and all those who narrate some piece of the journey, because that is the way I too am going. I may be a little behind or a lot, but I am on the same road. Death is a part of life, and we cannot live fully without it.
Thank you, Kate. Thank you, Jess. Thank you.